On Punctuation


I tend to speak emphatically — I gesticulate, enunciate, emphasize; I whisper, accelerate, pause; I lean in, lean out, shout. These are as easy to come by as living.

But writing can tend towards the deadpan. Which is one reason I like punctuation so much — it’s the emphatic and the gestural within language. Of course, punctuation is not the only means of emphasis and gesture. Word choice, rhythm, syntax: these are quite literally what make prose pop and move. Still, the keen use of punctuation can make the deadpan sing.

Here are just some of the wonders of punctuation:

The space: Well, this may be the most used but most overlooked piece of punctuation. The space helps define a word — otherwisethingscangetquitejumbled. Of course, not using the space can be powerful, forging an allatonce effect. Within the space, hide secret rhythms.

The comma: A momentary break in continuity, like a crack in the skateboarder’s sidewalk. A tempering of breath and sense.

The period: Can go staccato or be the respite at the end of a breathy idea. Use of the full stop is trickier than it seems.

The indentation: Someplace to rest, as if dangling one’s feet over a cliff before forging ahead.

The colon: The pull up headlights: the punchline.

The semi-colon: A period and a comma: how fantastic is that? Stopping and not stopping at the same time.

The em dash: One of the more gestural marks, as if putting up one’s hands and asking the reader to follow a tangent — but only for a moment.

Parentheses: The more discrete and discreet aside, a visible whisper, a qualification, a tangent, a drift. As language wants so much to be linear, the ability to stop and articulate is more than a luxury: it’s a necessity.

The ellipsis: The mark of a lack, of the invisible, the declaration that there is a secret without declaring the secret…the ability to skip over what we know: at once a shared assumption and a claim to privacy.

The exclamation point: Turns any phrase into an emphatic: Just watch! I find the exclamation point quite useful in virtual communication — texts and brief emails: they tell my reader that the seeming solemnity of my pixellated “thanks” is, in fact, a hearty, “thanks!”

The quotation mark: A crane that lets you lift language from elsewhere and drop it in your writing — an essential tool for the bricoleur.

The question mark: Uproots sense, leaves it open and wondering. Oh, I wish English had the upside down question mark!

Italics: Not sure this counts as punctuation per se but sometimes the words themselves need to careen.

The asterisk: Like a loose hair or dangling fingernail; or a tap on the shoulder; or, rune-like, a symbol that more resides elsewhere.

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image – Horia Varlan